China’s Religious Character May Be Deeper Than Thought

china-2.jpgThe light being cast on China by the coming Summer Games is far brighter than the flickering Olympic flame now wending its way across that vast country. Politics, society, human rights, the status of Tibet and even the environment have been widely discussed.


Now a window has been opened on faith and religion in a country where six decades of Communist philosophy and rule might seem to have pushed those subjects into obscurity.

In a recent report the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has analyzed available surveys, some a few years old, and concluded that 31 percent of the Chinese population considers religion to be very or somewhat important in their lives, with only 11 percent rating it as meaningless. Even the exact starting time of the Summer Olympics is rooted in Confucianism and Chinese folk religions,  the report adds, where the numeral 8 is revered for its luck and power. The games will start on the 8th day of the 8th month of ’08 at precisely 8 minutes and 8 seonds past 8 o’clock.

This does not mean that religious affiliation is high in China. Only one in five adults has an active connection, the report says, with one of the country’s five major religions — Buddhism (by far the largest single group), Protestantism, Catholicism, Islam and Taoism. That compares to 8 in every 10 adults in the United States who claim a religious affiliation.

But a recent report from East China Normal University in Shanghai appearing in state-approved media said that about 300 million Chinese over 16 — slghtly less than a third of the population in that age group — are religious, perhaps indicating the government has given recognition to the depth of religious sentiment.

Can China and the Vatican make beautiful music together?

World Team Table Tennis Championships in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, 2 March 2008/Bobby YipRemember ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players between the United States and communist China in the 1970s that was one of the first steps that led to a thaw in relations between the two countries? If the Vatican had a ping-pong team, perhaps China would have considered sending their squad to the walled city in Rome for a match.

But the Vatican does not have a ping-pong team, as far as we know. So, the next best thing appears to be music. This week, Vatican Radio made a surprise announcement on its daily 2 p.m. bulletin. The China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus will perform Mozart’s Requiem for Pope Benedict on May 7 in the Vatican’s audience hall, adding a stop to its already scheduled European tour.

Pope Benedict at a recent concert in his honor in the Vatian audience hallAs one diplomat said, “this could not have happened without the Beijing government approving it.” Given the fact that relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been scratchy to say the least, one can only wonder if this is the start of a mating game. It could lead to diplomatic relations and China’s recognition of the pope as leader of all Catholics in the world, including Chinese Catholics, many of whom have been forced to join the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Egypt outlaws protests in places of worship

Protest in al-Azhar mosque against Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech, 22 Sept 2006/Nasser NuriEgypt’s parliament has passed a law criminalising protests in places of worship, a measure the government’s opponents see as part of a wider pattern of reining in popular opposition.

The bill has been touted as a bid to protect the sanctity of places of worship by a government eager to burnish its religious credentials, tarnished by unpopular foreign policy decisions and a continuous crackdown on the Islamist opposition.

However, the law passed on Wednesday is widely seen as an effort to clamp down on the protests often held in major mosques such as al-Azhar, the university-mosque that has been a center of Islamic learning for over a thousand years.

Diplomatic blunder hurts church-state ties in Argentina

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, 16 Jan. 2008/Marcos BrindicciArgentina’s new president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is trying to improve relations with the Roman Catholic Church, but progress doesn’t come easy. Church-state ties turned tense under her husband Nestor, who preceded her as president from 2003 to 2007, because he occasionally alluded to church complicity in the country’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship. And his health minister, who favored loosening restrictions on abortion, had a public spat with the bishop assigned to tending to the country’s military forces.

So when Fernandez took office in December, she moved quickly to patch things up. One step she took was to meet the head of the Argentine Bishops’ Conference , Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit who ran against Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 papal election. However, the honeymoon didn’t last long. This time the problem was with the Vatican, which effectively rejected her new ambassador to the Holy See. The candidate, former Justice Minister Alberto Iribarne, is Catholic but divorced and living with a new partner, something the Church does not approve of.

Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican CityThe Vatican did not reject Iribarne’s nomination outright. It simply did not confirm him in the post, which in diplomatic terms means he hasn’t got a prayer. Local media report that Argentina is awaiting some formal response from the Vatican, but local Church sources say that is unlikely to materialise.

When top Catholic bishop speaks, Italy listens

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, 26 March 2007/Max RossiWhen the head of the Catholic bishops’ conference in most countries speaks, he expects the specialist Church media to report on him and considers himself lucky if he makes it into the religion pages of the mainstream press. When the president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) speaks, Italian media sit up and listen.

So when Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (left) delivered his opening address to a regular meeting of the CEI’s permanent council last Monday, his speech (here in Italian) was all over the television and radio that night and in all mainstream newspapers the next morning.

Bagnasco, following up on recent economic surveys, opinion polls and media stories, said Italy was effectively in a state of malaise, if not outright decline. He said Italy appeared like a “frayed” country and at times seemed as torn apart as “confetti.” He cited a recent report by the social research organisation Censis that said Italy was suffering from “deep inertia” and seemed “incapable of building a common future”. A “dangerous lack of confidence” was widespread, he said.